Happiness in Chinese Culture

"Happy? Happy is when you don't have a broken leg, so far as I know," says May Wynn, a character in Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny. In other words, happiness is the absence of serious unhappiness. Western culture has always found unhappiness easier to describe than happiness. When we consider ancient Greek drama, the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides move us today; the comedies of Aristophanes, however, are not especially funny. In Chapter 28 of the Book of Deuteronomy, the blessings that God will give His people if they obey His commandments are straightforward examples of everyday life: rain in its season, for instance. The curses if the people disobey are lengthy, imaginative, and poetic, like the following: “And the Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt … and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but no man will buy you” (28:68).

Dante’s Divine Comedy is another example of how much easier it is for Westerners to talk about misery than about happiness. The Inferno is hellish because it is close enough to our experiences on earth for us to comprehend; the Purgatorio is the same, albeit a temporary hell; the Paradiso is vague, difficult to grasp, and somehow not heavenly at all.

Chinese philosophers, on the other hand, don’t have too much to say about misfortune. Confucius, the best known and most influential thinker in Chinese history, wrote about rén, meaning “benevolence” or “virtue.” This word, perhaps not by coincidence, is a homonym of the word meaning “human” or “person,” although it is written with a different character, composed of the elements “person” and “two.” To be both human and benevolent is to be humane; the concepts are linked linguistically in English as they are in Chinese.

Confucius believed that virtue could be achieved through lǐ, which means both “ritual” and “courtesy.” Ritual was important to Confucius despite the fact that Confucianism is not a religion. There is a gap between Chinese philosophy and faith, reflected by a similar gap between ritual and belief. Although religious ritual plays an important role in Chinese culture, Chinese civilization stands out among the world’s ancient traditions as having no place for religious faith.

Taoism, spelled Daoism in the pinyin system of Romanization used in Mainland China, is generally considered a religion. Its founder, Lao Tzu (Laozi in pinyin), accepted the world the way he found it, with all its complexity and contradictions. He taught that one should follow the dao, the way, the path. Jewish law, incidentally , is called halakha, which also means “way” or “path.” Jewish law, however, is detailed and precise; the dao is unknowable. “The dao that can be told of is not the eternal dao,” according to the opening verse of the Tao De Ching, or Daode Jing, in pinyin. Among the many cryptic statements we find in the writings of Lao Tzu is the following:

Banish sageliness, discard wisdom
And the people will be benefited a hundredfold.
Banish humanity, discard righteousness,
And the people will return to filial piety and affection.
(Chapter 19)

Lao Tzu was the first post-modernist. Everything is true and false at the same time. “To seek learning one gains day by day; to seek the Tao one loses day by day” (Chapter 48). How would Lao Tzu define happiness if he were willing to give an answer that could be understood? I think he would say the following: Take it easy. Don’t try too hard. Don’t try to figure things out. Enjoy good luck. Enjoy bad luck.

Confucius, on the other hand, did not delight in paradox. What delighted him was life: learning, exploring, music, ritual, courtesy, respect, etc. “In education there are no class distinctions,” he said in the Analects (15:38). He is famous for his statement about disagreeing with one’s parents:

In serving his parents, a son may remonstrate with them, but gently; when he sees that they do not incline to follow his advice, he shows an increased degree of reverence, but he does not abandon his purpose; and should they punish him, he does not allow himself to murmur (4:18).

In other words, Confucius was trying to reconcile independence with obedience. Instead of accepting paradox, he called for subtlety. He also called for being humane: “A man who is not humane, what has he to do with rites? A man who is not humane, what has he to do with music?” (3:3). He was interested in this life, not the world to come: “We don’t know about life, how can we know about death?” (11:11).

When asked if there was a single word to some up what one’s conduct in life should be, Confucius answered “reciprocity” and illustrated what he meant by saying “Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you” (15:23). This is a negative phrasing of the Golden Rule. It appears across cultural lines. In the apocryphal book of Tobit, we read, “Do not do to anyone else what you hate” (4:15). Rabbi Hillel expanded on it when he said, “What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor. All the rest is commentary, go forth and learn.” Confucius agreed. Would he have agreed with the positive phrasing used by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount? Jesus said, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). We can’t know what Confucius would have thought about this verse, but we do know what George Bernard Shaw thought. He says, in the “Maxims for Revolutionaries,” appended to his play Man and Superman, “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.”

Confucius and Lao Tzu disagreed about reality, about striving, and about virtue. Nevertheless, they viewed the world as a happy place. They loved life and they loved people. A different Chinese philosopher, Hsün Tzu (Xunzi in pinyin), had a relatively negative view of humanity: “The nature of man is evil; his goodness is acquired” (Chapter 23). Hsün Tzu was not talking about original sin. Instead, he was calling for education. Man, said Hsün Tzu, “must submit himself to teachers and laws before he can be just; he must submit himself to the rules of decorum and righteousness before he can be orderly.”

The philosophers I have referred to lived a long time ago. Confucius is believed to have lived from 551 to 479 B.C.E., before Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Lao Tzu is traditionally believed to have antedated Confucius. Hsün Tzu lived from 298 to 238 B.C.E. Long before any of them wrote, however, Chinese was a written language. Chinese is written in characters which began as simplified pictures. Eventually, the characters became logographs—signs for words. That is what they are today. Sometimes a character has two or more elements, one of which is often a radical, which tells us something about the meaning, while the other may be a phonetic, which tells us something about the sound. The radical and the phonetic are themselves characters or variants of characters. Thus, two or more characters can be put together to create new characters.

To illustrate this, let us consider two characters, one pronounced (falling tone), meaning “wealthy”; the other pronounced (rising tone), meaning “happiness.” The characters are similar in having a complicated phonetic representing the sound fu. The character for “wealthy” has a roof over the phonetic. The roof suggests wealth, among other things. The character meaning “happiness” has a symbol to the left suggesting ritual. The combination of ritual and the sound fu suggests happiness, or at least did when the characters were created. The phonetic has three elements: the number one, a mouth, and a field. The meaning of the combination of these three elements may also suggest happiness or wealth. Happiness is good fortune. Wealth is a fortune. The English words “fortune” and “fortunate” reflect a linking of these concepts.

All languages have synonyms: words with the same meaning, but not exactly. In English, we have “joy,” “gladness,” “contentment,” etc. In Chinese, another word for “happiness” is lè. The character for this word is the same as the character for yuè, meaning “music.” The sound of these two words is different today, but the fact that they are written in exactly the same way suggests that they once were the same word. Chinese writing tells us that music is the same thing as happiness.

Still another synonym is xi. It suggests delight as well as happiness. At a wedding, we see this character doubled. Double happiness is clearly linked with marriage in Chinese. The divorce rate in China is going up, as is happening in many parts of the world, but a marriage is still double happiness. In a movie by Ang Lee entitled The Wedding Banquet, this character appears three times in the opening credits—triple happiness. The movie is about a ménage à trois, three people, a woman and two gay men, living happily together after one of the men marries the woman. The extension of the double-happiness symbol is an interesting example of the evolution of both language and culture.

Delight, marriage, good fortune, music. These associations are even older than the ideas of virtue, courtesy, learning, order, and acceptance that we find in Chinese philosophy. In every single case, however, happiness is the appreciation of the world. Even Hsün Tzu, who said people are evil by nature, said that by nature they want to be good and can become good.

Then came Buddhism, which reached China in the first century C.E., according to tradition. China under the Han Dynasty was going through a difficult period. The Han Dynasty finally collapsed in 220, and a period of disunity followed. Perhaps that was a factor in leading Chinese thought from its optimistic acceptance of reality to a religion that, like most religions, recognizes the universality and power of suffering. Buddhism teaches that one is reincarnated from one painful life to another. What one hopes for is Nirvana, when there will be no more reincarnations. Somehow, Buddhism and Confucianism coexisted, although they seem to contradict each other.

Buddhism reached its peak during the T’ang Dynasty (Tang in pinyin), which lasted from 617 to 907. The Tang period produced a number of famous poets, among them Li Po (Li Bai in pinyin), who wrote a very well-known poem about the joy of drinking with his friends: the moon and his shadow. We may interpret the poem differently, as the tragedy of being driven to drink with no human friends. Whatever our reading, the poem does not reflect Buddhist spirituality. It may be closer to the Taoist tradition of finding happiness--the mysteries of the Way—in the apparent contradictions of life. A later Tang poet, Po Chü-yi (Bai Juyi in pinyin), who lived from 772 to 846, was rather political. Here is a poem about free speech, translated by Arthur Waley:

Sent as a present from Annam—
A red cockatoo.
Colour’d like the peach-tree blossom,
Speaking with the speech of men.
And they did to it what is always done
To the learned and eloquent.
They took a cage with stout bars
And shut it up inside.

Politics is an attempt to improve society, which arguably shows that Bai Juyi was following the version of Confucianism expressed by Hsün Tzu: we are bad but we can achieve happiness by working to become good.

Buddhism was arguably the religion of most of China’s people for almost two millennia; nevertheless, Chinese culture has never been especially spiritual. Ancestor worship has been identified as China’s religion, although it is not part of any system of theology. Christianity appeared in the late 16th century. A missionary named Matteo Ricci finally succeeded in meeting the Emperor in 1601. Some Chinese were converted, but the numbers remained small. Then in the 19th century, a village schoolteacher named Hung Hsiu-ch’üan (Hong Xiuquan in pinyin) received visions telling him that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the visions really meant half-brother, with Hong and Jesus sharing God as their father but with different mothers. He established Taiping Christianity. Taiping means “great peace” and is the name of the Pacific (or “peaceful”) Ocean. Hong prohibited opium, tobacco, gambling, alcohol, prostitution, extra-marital sex, and foot binding. Women were officially equal with men. The Taipings were considered anti-Confucian because of both their puritanism and their advocacy of women’s rights. A bloody war broke out, which ended in a horrible massacre in 1864. The Taiping Rebellion may have been the strongest revolutionary movement in Chinese history up to that time.

What was happiness for the Taipings? They combined mysticism with politics and self-denial with a program to aid the poor and the oppressed. They wanted justice in this world and salvation in the next. Confucians, who believed in education, discussion, self-improvement and the reality of the world, might have been expected to be revolutionaries, but they weren’t. Confucians and Taoists were happy with the world; they were not willing to risk revolution to improve it. Buddhists, who looked forward to the end of the cycle of reincarnation and Nirvana, did not believe happiness could be achieved through life. The Taiping Christians, who believed true happiness could only be found in heaven, felt that one had to be moral on earth in order to achieve salvation. They created a revolution to improve life as part of the road to happiness after life. They combined a program of justice and equality with sternness and intolerance. They believed in brotherhood, yet they destroyed Taoist and Buddhist sculptures, which they considered idolatry. Chairman Mao admired Hong Xiuqian. Mao and Hong both rejected the idea of happiness in the short run.

China fought on the side of the side of the Allies in World War I. When Germany was defeated, China expected that parts of Shandong Province that had been occupied by Germany would be returned. Instead, the Versailles Conference awarded Germany’s former possessions to Japan. Many students at Beijing University rioted on May 4th, 1919. That was the beginning of a period of political activity and intellectual dissent know as the May 4th Movement. The Movement’s slogan was “Science and Democracy.” It is somewhat surprising that nobody had noticed that science—testing, examining without restrictions, reconsidering old theories—is in effect just what democracy does. Democracy is the political realization of the scientific method. On the one hand, May 4th was acting in the Confucian tradition of learning. On the other hand, holding demonstrations was very much a contradiction of the Confucian idea of respect. The May 4th Movement was anti-Confucian, yet it was at least in part following the Confucian belief in the reality of the world.

There is a May 4th Street in many Chinese cities. May 4th is a minor holiday, called Students’ Day. Chairman Mao did not feel threatened by a philosophy that called for science and democracy, which is quite surprising, since he was opposed to both science and democracy. He closed down high schools and universities during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and exiled teachers and scholars to the countryside so that they could learn from the peasants. He suppressed free speech as it had never been suppressed before, encouraging people to report their friends and relatives for counterrevolutionary thoughts. Parents feared their children, and with good reason. A careless remark heard by a child might get repeated to someone else, and the parent could be arrested for being a rightist. Some children actually denounced their parents to the authorities. China was no longer the land of filial piety.

In place of the Confucian ideals of courtesy, benevolence, and reciprocity, Mao introduced thought reform, sixiang gaizao. Everyone in a Marxist society would be equal economically, which was supposed to mean that everyone would have the same interests and therefore think in the same way.

What about happiness? Happiness was to be achieved through loving the Communist Party, loving China, and loving Chairman Mao. Service and sacrifice to the ideals of Marx and Mao were the only legitimate forms of happiness. Theater and opera were banned, except for the revolutionary operas selected by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing.

And certain pets were banned. City dwellers were not allowed to own dogs. Those who had dogs had to give them away to a farmer or allow them to be killed. They could be eaten afterwards. The reason, never stated and perhaps never understood by those who created this prohibition, was that love is finite. Citizens should not squander love that ought to be directed to the Communist Party on their own pets.

Nowadays, this law had been modified. China today is preoccupied with money. An ID for one’s dog can be purchased for a large sum of money. According to the September 20, 2004, edition of China Daily, in the city of Xi’an, an ID used to be 5,000 yuan ($600), but it has been lowered to 500 yuan ($60). Apparently the city officials could not collect enough money with their high fees, and so they lowered them.

China has entered the stage of Marxist capitalism. Marx wrote that humanity had to pass through a number of stages: primitive communism, feudalism, capitalism (during which science and technology would be discovered), socialism, and the final stage of communism, post-technological and therefore rich. Chairman Mao thought he could skip the capitalist stage. China’s current leaders have rejected Mao’s heterodoxy and accepted capitalism as a necessary period society must go through. They know that communism must come eventually, since they believe Marx can never be wrong. But they hope it will not come during their own lives. However, they really aren’t thinking about Marx, although they are influenced by his analysis. Marx taught that nothing matters but economics. Therefore, nothing is more important than money. Nowhere in the world do people talk about money more than they do in China. Today, happiness means money, period.

The strength of Marxist capitalism is illustrated by news stories and op-ed essays in China’s government-controlled press. China Daily, an English-language newspaper published in Beijing, ran a headline on February 22, 2005, announcing “Income gap grows wider in Beijing.” It is a bit hard to think of a country run by the Communist Party announcing such news. Even more surprising was an op-ed on February 19 entitled, “Let the market fully play its role.” The author, Zhou Tianyong, is a researcher at the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. The essay suggests that the government of the People’s Republic should “bring out the role of the market in allocating resources and clarify the rights of production factors.” This doesn’t sound like a People’s Republic. It sounds like the Republican Party.

There is another tendency, however. Religion is making an appearance. An organization called Falun Gong (law-wheel exercise) or Falun Dafa (law-wheel big-law) has spread in China and is being persecuted by the Chinese government. It teaches qigong breathing exercises, an aspect of Taoist ritual. It is a modern expression of Taoism, China’s oldest organized religion. Christianity is spreading as well. Various Protestant denominations are growing, and new Chinese versions of Christianity are being created, although they are less innovative than the Taiping Christianity of the 19th century.

Both love of money and religious faith are post-Marxist phenomena in China. Love of money exists everywhere, but in China it is the heir of the Marxist teaching that all motivation is economic. Religious faith exists everywhere, but in China it is the heir to the atheistic faith of Marx, who taught that the world would inevitably go through its pre-determined stages of history. Furthermore, the Marxist commitment to thought reform facilitates the unquestioning acceptance of dogma.

Will China ever return to the Confucian identification of happiness with virtue and reciprocity? Will China ever seek happiness through the May 4th identification of democracy with science? Only time will tell.